The House of Representatives is expected to pass a water bill Wednesday that Republicans call a necessity for drought-stricken California, but which Democrats label a "water grab" and political power play that undermines years of delicate negotiations.
The bill -- which opponents say would give more water to farmers at the expense of the environment -- is probably dead on arrival in the Democrat-controlled Senate, where both of California's senators oppose it. But the bill, which has drawn scathing criticism from Gov. Jerry Brown, highlights a deepening partisan divide over solving the Golden State's water woes now and for decades to come in a way that balances the needs of farmers, environmentalists and average Californians who expect clean water when they turn on the tap.
In introducing the bill last week, Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, said his constituents "are suffering from drought conditions severely exacerbated by erroneous federal regulations. Families and farmers alike are not receiving the water they need to meet their basic, everyday needs."
But Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Napa, said Tuesday that "this piece of legislation has nothing to do with water; it has nothing to do with public policy. It has everything to do with politics."
Thompson was referring to the flood of goodwill it could bring Republicans in a few Central Valley swing districts in this year's midterm elections. "It's an opportunity to politically help a couple of members of Congress, and it's a distraction from what we should be doing," he said.
Thompson said he discussed the drought and the GOP bill with President Barack Obama during the House Democratic Caucus' meeting Tuesday at the White House. "With about 10 seconds of explanation, he saw though the charade," he said. "He also pointed out what we all know: He said, 'There's no way that bill becomes law.'"
HR 3964, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Emergency Water Delivery Act, would let more water be sent southward from federal pumps in the Delta to San Joaquin Valley farms. To do that, it would roll back federal environmental protections, halt restoration of the San Joaquin River's flow and salmon habitat, and pre-empt various state water and endangered-species laws. The bill is co-sponsored by every California House Republican.
House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, said at a news conference Tuesday that the Senate must act. "If you don't like the bill we send, then tell us what you do support so we can go to conference and get something done. But stop ignoring a problem."
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., retorted later Tuesday that "at a time when we should be bringing people together, House Republicans are pushing another divisive and discredited proposal designed to score political points instead of addressing this unprecedented drought."
A Senate water bill will be introduced this week, said Tom Mentzer, a spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Thompson said some House Democrats have been working with Feinstein's staff, "trying to smooth out some of the edges on her bill."
The GOP lawmakers contend San Joaquin Valley farmers have been getting shortchanged for years as pumping has been reduced to protect the endangered Delta smelt, a tiny fish. They say the drought makes it even more important that the policy be changed.
The bill undeniably is political gold for Republicans like Valadao and Jeff Denham, R-Modesto, whose valley districts are considered to be in play in this year's midterm elections. Though they might have lost some ground with voters over last October's GOP-led government shutdown and House Republicans' resistance to comprehensive changes to immigration laws, advancing agriculture's water interests during this crisis has no political downside for them. Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, certainly knew that when he visited Bakersfield late last month to stand with Valadao, McCarthy and others as they rolled out the bill.
But Michael Hanemann, a UC Berkeley professor of agricultural and resource economics, said Tuesday that insufficient Delta pumping isn't the problem: It's the lack of rain and snowpack that feeds the Delta to start with.
"You could kill every fish in the Delta and you'd still have a real problem, so it's not as if this bill is well-targeted at solving our problems -- this is an act of opportunism," he said, adding that California has struggled for decades to balance the needs of agriculture, recreation and environmental protection. "If the Republicans want to ask if we've made that balance the right way, that's a fair question to debate, but it's really separate from the drought."
In a letter to the House Natural Resources Committee on Monday, Gov. Brown called the bill "an unwelcome and divisive intrusion into California's efforts to manage this severe crisis." It would block the state's ability to respond effectively and flexibly to the drought, he wrote, and would "reopen old water wounds undermining years of progress toward reaching a collaborative long-term solution to our water needs."